Functional Design: Building an Ergonomic Phone

The Need for Functional Design

The modern ‘mobile-work’ ethic means that a consumer’s use environment has extended beyond the desk into the drawing room, cars, coffee shops and airplanes. While this has increased productivity, extended device use has made mobile fatigue terms such as Blackberry thumb, iHurt, and smartphone elbow common expressions. It is more important than ever to focus on functional design.

Modern phone design must take into account how easy the phone is to use. In an age where device specifications are roughly similar, designs that fit the human body will become a vital differentiator for consumers. An ideal design is one that finds a balance between comfort, efficiency, and the visual aesthetic.

Bezel-less phones demonstrate how difficult it is to get the balance right. The large screens are a visual treat, allowing plenty of space to display content with large buttons for navigation. The challenge is physical: it is difficult to reach all parts of the screen comfortably, and users often over-extend their thumbs to reach the edges. Often they accidentally activate the display with a palm.

Hitting the Ergonomic Sweet Spot

Assuming the rectangular shape of smartphones holds, fingers and hands will undoubtedly at the centre of ergonomic phones. An independent study in 2013 by mobile UX researcher Steven Hoober on phone grips confirmed that the one-handed grip was the most popular with 49% preferring it. When holding the phone this way, the thumb is the only finger comfortably available for tapping. Hoober confirmed that irrespective of the grip, 75% of all phone interactions are driven by the thumb.

While the thumb can cover almost the whole surface of a phone, its natural range of motion falls in an arc at the bottom on the opposite side of the thumb. This zone is the most accurate for tap targets and should be where frequently used controls are placed. Instead of hamburger menus, swipe gestures for navigation could be more intuitive.

Inclusivity Equals Ergonomic Design

Functional design supports the least accurate method of touch that it could encounter. As such, large tap targets would not only be comfortable for thumbs, but also support the tiniest of fingers. Perhaps the quickest way to make a truly ergonomic smartphone would be to target the minority, such as users who have arthritis.

Solving their challenges through inclusive design would inadvertently improve the experience for the ‘normal’ user. For example, brain-machine interfaces which could help paralysed users use computers may result in a phone you can control with your mind. What could be more ergonomic than that?


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